“Well, while I’m here I’ll do the work — and what’s the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.” – Allen Ginsberg
I recently attended a weekend retreat with my meditation group. One of our instructors was Maxine Hong Kingston, a wonderful, generous teacher, writer, and mystic. The retreat took place between Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving, so the theme was “moving from war to gratitude.”
Maxine told us about a group of young soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and formed a writers’ group. “They had faith that writing would bring them home,” Maxine said. She showed us a little book they had compiled, whose cover was a rough, handmade paper, thick as cardboard. She said the veterans had cut up their uniforms, boiled them, and used the remains to make paper covers for their books. The green-grey-white cover was scratchy and knuckled as the bark of a tree that has withstood every kind of storm and keeps on growing.
Collectively, creatively, these soldier-writers transformed their suffering into art. Their painful memories became poems. Their war clothes became book jackets.
Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) has said that he wouldn’t want to live in a place where there is no suffering, because there would be no compassion. I’ve had to sit with this idea a lot. Usually I (and most people I know) have a knee-jerk reaction to pain and suffering — it’s “get me out of here!” We want to run away from anything that itches or ouches. We want to get to happyland, where it’s all fun, sun, and money. Yet we also want love and compassion. And Thay says in order to have love and compassion, you’ve got to have suffering.
Suffering is the mud. Compassion is the lotus that needs mud in order to grow.
It’s no fun to sit with suffering. But it brings the heart to life. I remember the time I sat in the emergency room with a friend who had an abscessed tooth. And the time I held another friend’s hand as she wept after her husband died. And the time I helped a Hospice patient sort through boxes of cards and letters from her loved ones; she was crying as she decided what to do with these before the end of her life. I remember these moments vividly because my heart was wide open. I was deeply alive, acutely feeling. This open, unguarded aliveness is where humans connect. It’s where we know we are neither alone nor separate. It’s the truest place to abide if we want to be of use in the world.
May each of us take our uniforms, our weapons, our resistances, and stay with them closely, lovingly, with mindful attention, so that their sludge and mud will feed the flowerings of our art and service.